Tuesday, October 23, 2012



Cordoba, Spain, is a charming town on the banks of the Guadalquivir River. A melting pot of cultures that produced its urban fabric, in its exquisite courtyards, its fused architecture and its fine art, dating back from  millennia.

Cordoba's picturesque streets, with the tower of the cathedral in the background

Typical Andalusian patio
Photo courtesy of Janette Simplina

Having been inhabited by Iberians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Visigoths, the city developed largely in the Middle Ages, under the coexistence of Muslims, Jews and Christians.

Remains of Roman temple in Cordoba
Photo Carlos Zeballos

It was during the Islamic rule that Cordoba became a gravitating center of Islamic culture in the area of ​​Al-Andalus, where arts, literature, philosophy, medicine, chemistry, and other activities flourished .

Statue of Ben Maimonides, a noted philosopher, physician and theologian

The most notable expression of Moorish architecture is the Great Mosque of Cordoba, whose orthogonal geometry contrasts with the intricate streets that make up the urban layout of Córdoba, and whose harmonic and rich decoration shines under a masterful play of light.

Mosque next to the Guadalquivir.
See location on Google Maps

The Great Mosque is the result of many modifications and additions through the centuries. It is believed that it was originally a Roman temple, but the truth is that it was a Visigoth church, the Basilica of Saint Vicent. In 751 the Emir Abd al-Rahman I bought some area of the church to accomodate his own place of prayer (for some time Christians and Muslims share the same place of worship). Successive interventions by Abd al-Rahman II in the ninth century, Al Hakam II and Almanzor in the tenth century enhanced the mosque to the size that we know today. In the sixteenth century, Bishop Alonso Manrique turned the mosque into a cathedral.


The minaret is a tower located in a courtyard,  from which a muezzin calls Muslims to prayer. The original minaret was in the midst of the current Court of the Oranges and was built by Hixam I. When the courtyard was enlarged, the tower was destroyed and a new one was built in the tenth century The current tower, called the Cathedral, was made in the seventeenth century, practically wrapping the old minaret .

The tower of the Cathedral from the Patio of the Na
Photo Carlos Zeballos

The entrance to the complex is given through the Gate of Forgiveness (Puerta del Perdón), where forgave pilgrims were publicly forgiven.


Mosques have two parts: the sahn or courtyard that features a tower called minaret and the masjid or prayer hall. Behaving as a transition space between the space of the street and the sacred area of ​​the mosque, this court is named after its orange trees, arranged in a grid layout. This space was where the faithful wash before entering the Grand Mosque. In the middle there is a fountain that is said to concede marriage to whoever drinks from its waters.

The Court of the oranges or sahn, a transition space before entering the temple.
Image courtesy of CVC


The original mosque, with capacity for 5,000 people, made by Abd al-Rahman I, consisted of 11 oblong naves ending in the qibla, a wall pointing towards Mecca (though this wall is oriented a little further south). This building system was based on a series of arches and columns arranged in two rows. At the bottom are located some horseshoe arches, on which are superimposed semi-circular arches. This technique could give more height to the naves while allowing transparency and spatial communication between them. This system was based on the great Roman aqueducts and in the horseshoe arches,  typical of the Visigoths, but here in Cordoba achieved a unique combination. The pillars are decorated with corbels on their front. Since, as we said, this mosque was built over a church, and many of the materials were recycled elements, it is possible to observe dissimilar capitals and columns. Its unique two-color pattern is due to the use of alternating voussoirs of brick and limestone.

Arches of horseshoe arches
Photo Carlos Zeballos


To make the first enlargement in 832, Abd al-Rahman II demolished the mosque qibla and extended it towards the river, building also, as mentioned, the first minaret. The original floor was rammed earth mixed with clay called red ocher.

In 855 Muhammad I remodeled the San Esteban Gate, whose arc is finished with a molding called alfiz, which was subsequently frequently repeated.

St. Stephen's Gate


It was also made towards the Guadalquivir in 962 by al-Hakam II, who enlarged the prayer room, this time using new (not recycled) elements in its construction. Its expansion is a "visual settings and morphologically complex configuration of forms that are located on a connection between past and future" (Khoury, 1996).

He expanded the patio and for that purpose he knocked down the old minaret to build a new one. Also he included a large library with a huge hall for copyists (who copied books since printing was not invented yet) The horseshoe arches, whose concept had been used previously, are redefined with intricate designs, intersecting each other and producing polylobed forms.

Spectacularly carved arches.
Photo Carlos Zeballos

Facing the qibla wall there is a small room lavishly decorated with marble and fine carvings called mihrab, before which the Quran was read.

In turn, ribbed vaults intertwine defining an octagonal space, covered by a dome.

The arch of the mihrab and the dome are covered with fine mosaics of Byzantine influence (as the Romans used mosaics preferably on the floor)

Maqsura section.
Image courtesy Nuha N. Kouri


In 987 Almanzor, unable to continue growing towards the river, decided to enlarge the complex to the east, adding eight new naves and expanding the patio. The arches in this area are painted. With this extension the mosque reached a capacity of 25,000 people. The horseshoe arch is predominant, also richly decorated.


Using a mixture of styles between the Islamic and Christian, in a style called Mudejar, numerous modifications took place in the mosque in order to be used as a cathedral.

The expansion made in the sixteenth century by Bishop Alonso Manrique destroyed parts of the mosque, especially the expansion of Abd al-Rahman II, despite opposition from neighbors and the council of Córdoba (even threatening with death penalty whoever dared to work in the construction). In the end, King Charles I authorized the Bishop ... big mistake, as the king, when he saw the works of the cathedral said:

"If I had known what it was, I would not have allowed to touch the old parts, since you have done what exists in many other parts and have destroyed what was unique".

The cathedral, in cross plan, was executed by architect Hernán Ruiz, and subsequently by his son and grandson, who built the chapel and the transept. Particularly remarkable are the Altarpiece, richly made in  red marble, and the chorus of the canons. Both carved wooden pulpits and the chairs are made of mahogany brought from Cuba.

After the fall of Cordoba in 1236, the mosque was preserved as a cultural value by the kings of Castile and became an architectural and aesthetic reference that would eventually be transferred to the New World.

The following is a video of our visit to the Great Mosque of Cordoba:


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